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Assembled and Arranged by 


December 7, J938 to January 8, 1939 



Well over a century and a half old, the United Society of Be- 
lievers or Shakers represents the most successful and productive 
experiment in pure religious communism in America. The sect 
originated in Manchester, England, among a group of Quakers 
who had been influenced by the teachings of the Camisards or 
French Prophets. Ann Lee, the founder of the order, joined this 
cult — then led by one Jane Wardley and her husband James — in 
1758, and thirteen years later, after a term in prison where she 
received heavenly communications and revelations, became ac- 
knowledged as the "mother of the new creation." Accompanied 
by eight disciples, the prophetess came to this country in 1774, 
and in the opening year of the Revolution established the first 
Shaker commune at Niskeyuna or Watervliet, New York. From 
1780 to 1784 (the year of Mother Ann's death) the movement 
spread through many parts of New York state and New England, 
and by 1794 eleven societies had been organized: four in Massa- 
chusetts, at Hancock, Tyringham, Harvard and Shirley; two in 
Maine, at Alfred and New Gloucester (Sabbathday Lake) ; two in 
New Hampshire, at Enfield and Canterbury; one at Enfield in 
Connecticut; and two in New York, at New Lebanon and Water- 
vliet. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century seven 
additional colonies were founded in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, 
and one more in the state of New York. At the zenith of their 
prosperity, just before the Civil War, the Shakers numbered over 
six thousand; today there are less than a hundred members in the 
four extant communities of New Lebanon, Hancock, Canterbury 
and Sabbathday Lake. 

The principle doctrines of the Believers — celibacy, confession, 
separation from the world and common ownership of property — 
were supported by a unique theology compounded of old testa- 
ment history, the teachings of Jesus, the practices of the primitive 
apostolic church, the revelations of St. John and the conflict of 
true believers with anti-Christ and the world. They believed in 
a dual (father-mother) God, in the dogma that the Christ spirit 

had made its second appearance in Ann, in the doctrine of the 
equality of the sexes, in distinct ideas regarding regeneration, 
the resurrection and the eternal travel of the soul. War, competi- 
tive industry and politics they renounced and avoided. The 
United Society was conceived and in some respects administered 
as a church. Politically and economically it was a federation of 
communities grouped into bishoprics over which a central ministry 
of two elders and two eldresses exercised supreme authority. Sub- 
ordinate ministries had immediate supervision of the bishoprics. 
Each commune was divided into semi-independent "families" 
whose membership might range from thirty to over a hundred. 
An order or "lot" of elders and eldresses, responsible to the min- 
istry, had oversight of the spiritual welfare of a family; deacons 
and deaconesses, holding office under the eldership, directed the 
industrial life of the unit; the property of the family was held by 
trustees. Both the spiritual and temporal phases of Shaker life 
were dual in control and practice. 


To all productive activity, whether in the dwelling, shop or 
field, the Shakers applied the simple phrase "hand labor." The 
laborers of this unworldly order were builders, joiners, mechanics, 
weavers, yeomen; they never thought of themselves as architects, 
craftsmen or artisans. But the impress of a united inspiration 
and belief invested all workmanship with a distinct character 
and uniform quality. Buildings, furniture, textiles, ironware, 
basketry, industrial products of all sorts, even their hand-written 
hymnals and "illuminated" drawings, bespeak a consecrated 
culture, a spirit dedicated to the doctrine that to labor was to 
worship and responsive to Mother Ann's injunction of "hands 
to work and hearts to God." Though such workmanship may be 
described as a folk, provincial or utilitarian art, it is best under- 
stood in terms of "primitive rectitude" or Tightness, "Christian 
perfection," "gospel simplicity" and the plain but basic Shaker 
concepts of order and use. 

If the earthly dwelling of the Most High were to be permanent 
and pure, Mother Ann taught, it must be founded on order and 
consecrated industry. "Do your work," she told her disciples, 
"as though you had a thousand years to live and as though you 

were to die tomorrow." If the society were to be a habitation 
preparing for heaven itself, all must be useful, production must 
be for use only, all workmanship must approach perfection. "We 
believed we were debtors to God in relation to each other and all 
men to improve our time and talents in this life in that manner 
in which we might be most useful." So wrote the first cove- 
nanters in 1795. Joseph Meacham, the American-born father 
of Shaker communism, defined use in specific terms: "all things 
(he decreed) must be well made and kept decent and in good order, 
according to their order and use;" "all work done or things made 
in the church ought to be faithfully and well done, but plain and 
without superfluity " — " neither too high nor too low. " 

To achieve plainness in craftsmanship was not a simple process. 
Like humility in conduct, it had to be cultivated; the restraint 
involved was akin to the self-denial which upheld the celibate 
"cross." Plainness demanded a clear primary idea of function, 
the employment of the best materials and tools, and a combina- 
tion of straightforwardness and skilful technique. The purity 
of line and form in furniture, the neatly balanced proportions of 
buildings, the refinement of design in ironware, the graceful 
strength of machines, the sober perfection of all the products 
of industry — such qualities were the result of a strict concentra- 
tion on the "order" the product was to serve. Beauty, the Shakers 
believed, rested on utility and should not be an aim per se. " That 
which has in itself the highest use possesses the greatest beauty." 
" Order (they held) is the creation of beauty. " 

Separation from the world and community of goods also had 
their effect on the labor of the hands. Consciously avoiding " car- 
nal" styles and tastes, intent on leading a regenerate life, the 
Believers took a guild-like pride in work which would glorify 
their heavenly calling. No products were allowed to leave the 
community without rigid inspection. Shaker manufactures bore 
a premium in the market and encouraged inferior imitations, 
often under the "Shaker" name. 

Furniture and architecture, heating and cooking devices, textiles 
and clothing reflect no less than the large gardens and orchards 
a communal organization and the ideal of unity. Production 
was primarily for communal use. Large buildings, long tables, 
spacious cases of drawers, huge cooking arches and stoves, ex- 
tensive apparatus for making cloth and clothes, all attest the 

status of a "joint interest" — a condition, be it added, which did 
not standardize production nor disallow the creation of a vast 
quantity of small furniture, tools and appurtenances to serve 
individual comfort and need. All Shakers being " one with Christ " 
and gathered into one joint union with equal rights and privileges, 
the things made for their temporal use tend towards, though 
they do not adhere to a uniform style or design. They have a 
recognizable Shaker look; yet the fact that variants probably 
outnumber duplications is a tribute to the ingenuity of the me- 
chanic, joiner and weaver, an indication of the complexity of 
the social and economic structure, and a revelation of the many 
forms in which pure simplicity may be expressed. 


The emblematic drawings in the present exhibit were part of 
the phenomena of a period in Shaker history in which the beauty 
and wisdom of the spiritual world were revealed to the instru- 
ments or " visionists" of the order. Through the mystic channels 
of inspiration new songs and dances were composed, new rituals 
celebrated, and messages received from departed saints. Many 
of these symbolic designs — hundreds of which were drawn — pur- 
port to be images or abstractions of celestial scenes witnessed in 
dream or vision. Often they were given by the artist-instrument 
to a sister or brother, eldress or elder, as a reward for merit or 
token of deep regard. But neither these nor the primitive land- 
scapes or plans were ever displayed on the white walls of Shaker 
rooms, whose spacious surfaces were broken only by the omni- 
present pegboards — examples again of order and use. 

Edward Deming Andrews 



Shaker Dining Room 

Trestle table with three-slat chairs 


Splay-leg table 

Six-drawer counter 

Drop-leaf stand 

Sill cupboard and steps 


Steel candlesticks 

Round" stands 

Etching: Shaker stove. By Armin Landeck 
Wood engravings. By A. Boyd Houghton, 1870 
Wood engraving. By Joseph Becker 


Shaker Brethren's Room 

Communal dining table with benches 

Rocker, stand and pipe-rack 

Sill cupboard 

Cobbler's bench and light stands 

Post-office cupboard 

Primitive work-stand and pill-maker 

Wall clock 

Herb cupboard 


Communal school desk with bench 

Brethren's costumes 

In the cases: 

Books and pamphlets 

Tools and products of brethren's shops 

On the walls: 

Views ("plans") of Canterbury, Alfred and 
New Gloucester villages 
Seed poster 
Herb labels 


Shaker Sisters' Rooms 

Workroom : 

Rocking chairs and footstool 
Peg-leg and rim-top stands 
Double reel 

Child's tilting chair 
Drop-leaf sewing cabinet 
Counter for tailoress 
Sewing desk 
Swivel chair 

Retiring room: 

Drop-leaf table and table-desk 
Rocking and side chairs 

Tripod sewing stand (dual use) 

Wall sconce 

Cot on rollers 


Mirror on rack 


Towel rack 

Wood-box, shovel and tongs 


Blanket chest 

Desk on tripod base 

Hanging book rack 

Sewing stand with till 

Sisters' costumes 

In the cases: 

Products of sisters' shops: poplar baskets, 
sisters' tools, tapes, gloves, handkerchiefs, 
stockings, net caps, etc. 

On the walls: 

Inspirational drawings 

Lithograph in color: Shaker mode of wor- 
ship. By A. Imbert, c. 1820 
Watercolor: Interior of meeting-house, New 
Lebanon. By Benson Lossing, 1856